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State Senate GOP gets a pass from feds on redistricting

ALBANY — In a blow to New York Democrats, the Obama administration on Friday decided not to object to the Republican-devised redistricting plan that added a seat to the state Senate.

The Republican plan, signed into law by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has been criticized by good-government groups, and Senate Democrats are challenging the plan in court.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said in a letter dated Friday that the U.S. Justice Department has no objections to adding a 63rd seat under provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act, designed to ensure that minorities have a voice in government and that political district boundaries meet the one-person-one-vote principle.

Republicans hold a 32-30 majority in the New York Senate going into the fall elections. In Albany, the majority party controls legislation, has one of three key roles in budgeting, and provides perks and other advantages over the minority.

Favorable districts are seen as a life-or-death matter to sustain the Republicans’ last power base in the blue state, where every statewide office is held by Democrats.

The state Court of Appeals heard arguments Thursday in the case, which has been expedited to make sure district lines are final before campaigns ramp up. Democrats appealed a trial judge ruling that the use of different formulas by Senate Republicans to establish district boundaries was “disturbing,” but not unconstitutional.

The new 63rd Senate district mostly covers Republican suburbs west and south of Albany. And critics say the plan continues the practice of using redistricting to protect the majority’s power by contorting districts so that majority party voters outnumber minority party voters.

“The redistricting fight will continue in court where we are confident we will prevail,” said Mike Murphy, spokesman for the Senate Democrats. “The Senate Republican redistricting plan clearly disenfranchises minority communities and blatantly violates the one-person-one-vote principle.”

The Senate’s Republican majority says the case hinges on the higher standard of whether adding the Senate seat will cause irreparable harm to voters and the voting process.

The Assembly plan drawn by the Democratic majority in that chamber has prompted similar criticism, although the plan doesn’t propose adding any seats.

Democrats hold legislative seats representing New York City, but still face a battle with Republicans in the Senate districts upstate and in the New York City suburbs.

Four years ago, Democrats wrested the majority from Republicans for the first time in a half-century, but lost the upper hand after a two-year term of scandal and political gridlock. In that fallout, former Democratic Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. of the Bronx is being tried on federal embezzlement charges related to his time in the Senate.

Sen. Carl Kruger of Brooklyn was sentenced this week to seven years in prison in a bribery scheme related to his Senate work, and Sen. Hiram Monserrate of Queens was removed from the Senate in 2010 following a misdemeanor conviction in an assault case involving his girlfriend.